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Chapter 5, Part I, C. Stephen Evans’ God and Moral Obligations, “Alternatives to Divine Command Theory”:

Summary by David Baggett

God and Moral Obligation by C. Stephen Evans 

In this chapter Evans looks at metaethical views that some will see as a rival to a divine command theory (DCT) to see what strengths and weaknesses they have. Some aren’t really competitors, and for those that are Evans will try to show that they face serious objections that a DCT does not face. He will try to select examples of each view that are prominent and representative, without claiming that such views exhaust the territory.


J. L. Mackie was well known for his moral skepticism and “error theory” in ethics. Ordinary morality, he thought, is best thought of as a kind of “folk theory” that turns out to be false. Mackie presents a number of arguments for this view. First, he thought a subjective account of morality accounts for the relativity and variability in moral beliefs and practices. Second, objective moral value would be “queer” in the sense of being peculiar; they have no foundation in the world as described by science. Third, it’s hard to see why moral values should supervene as they do on natural features of the world. Fourth, it’s hard to see how such objective values could be known even if they are real. Finally, a reductive explanation of beliefs about values undermines any claim to objectivity.

How should a DCT’ist respond? Well, she can join her voice with various other ethicists (Kantians, natural law theorists, utilitarians, and the like) to argue for the objectivity of ethics. Beyond that, though, she can show that several of Mackie’s arguments work well against naturalistic theories. Values and other moral properties are indeed queer in a naturalistic world, but not a theistic one. Likewise it would be strange in a naturalistic world that humans have cognitive capacities that give them understanding of the good and the bad, of right and wrong, but not in a theistic one. Interestingly, Mackie himself imagined how God could play a role in ethics much as Evans envisions. Mackie didn’t subscribe to the view, but he thought it coherent and could see how it could defuse the Euthyphro objection.

Nietzsche, another atheist, similarly saw ethics as connected with God. His scathing critique of secular ethics was based on the way it tended to assume objective morality is possible without God, which he thought ludicrous. In this way he offered the testimony of an “unfriendly witness” that objective moral obligations require God and make sense only, or at least the most sense, if God exists.


Expressivism as a metaethical theory comes in a variety of forms, from the emotivism of Ayer to the sophisticated quasi-realism of Blackburn. What they hold in common is “non-cognitivism” or “anti-realism”: the rejection of the idea that moral propositions express objective truths. Instead moral statements express emotions (Ayer), attitudes (Stevenson), prescriptions as to how one should behave (Hare), plans to which one is committed (Gibbard), or perhaps a complex mix of such subjective states (Blackburn).

The strength of the expressivist view is that it appears to account for why morality matters, and why moral claims can motivate as they do. It links to our actions. But Evans wants to raise a question about whether it links morality to behavior in the right way. The question he wants to raise is not whether moral judgments can motivate, but whether on expressivist views such judgments can have the kind of authority morality ought to have.

Many early criticisms of the view were based on the claim that such views do not seem to do justice to moral disagreements and arguments. Relatedly, Geach said it couldn’t make sense of moral propositions figuring in logically valid arguments. This led to more sophisticated accounts. At the heart of such views lies the idea that even though moral statements do not express propositions with genuinely objective truth values, there is a natural human tendency to “project” our emotions, attitudes, prescriptions, plans, etc. onto the objective world. This projective theory gives a reductive explanation of why moral language has the features it does that enable moral statements to mimic propositions that have genuine representational content. Blackburn and others have in turn developed accounts of the “logic” of moral statements that explain how it can be that these statements mimic the properties of genuinely representational propositions, even though they actually don’t refer to anything.

Evans thinks the real difficulty with the view lies with the way that expressivism, even in its projectivist, quasi-realist form, undermines the authority of moral judgments, especially judgments about moral obligations. Take emotivism, for example. Why should Mary care about the approval of James? One might think the problem is that the James doesn’t mean enough to Mary, but that’s not really the point. The challenge is to account for moral authority. The more sophisticated quasi-realism of Blackburn may appear to help with this problem, but the help is illusory. For in the end moral judgments merely mimic statements that can be true or false independently of the stance of the person making the judgment.

Blackburn doesn’t think his view makes truth relative, because if we “step back into the boat,” as it were, and put back the lens of a sensibility, there’s nothing relativistic left to say. Evans replies, though, that for the person who has awakened to the truth of projectivism, even this will be difficult to do or even impossible for some. How can we get back into one particular boat and believe that it’s the “right” boat, when we know there’s no such thing as the right boat?

If we could segregate our beliefs about normative ethics from our metaethical beliefs, perhaps Blackburn’s view would work, but it is not easy to wall off our beliefs about morality from our actual moral convictions. In the end, quasi-realism is a form of moral skepticism, only Mackie’s theory is transparent and honest, while the skepticism on Blackburn’s part is disguised by the fact that he continues voicing some elements of his own moral stance as if they were objectively true judgments. But the truth on offer seems a pseudo-truth, a “semantic shadow” of the attitudes and stances taken by ordinary people.

Find the other chapter summaries here. 


Image: “testament closeup” by J. Kramer. CC License. 


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